Throwback Thursday: “1000 Forms of Fear” by Sia

Aesthetics have been intertwined with pop music since, well, the beginning of pop music; Elvis shook his hips onstage and millions of fans swooned, while decades later The Artist Formerly Known as Prince used an unpronounceable symbol to make his mark amidst the purple paisley. And don’t even get me started on Madonna.

Sia is a unique case because her choice of aesthetic is arguably a rejection of it. In the era when 1000 Forms of Fear came out, she presented herself as a recluse – even while onstage. She wore giant wigs that obscured her face and didn’t even appear in her own music videos. That was left to Dance Moms alum Maddie Ziegler. Both bizarre choices, but by taking herself out of the equation, Sia forced us to focus on the music itself.

The beats on the album are excellent trip-hop with Top 100 sensibilities: just listen to “Chandelier.” Sia knows how to make that work for her, even when she’s got full-size choruses; we never feel overwhelmed or like her voice is competing with those snaps and hooks. One doesn’t drown out the other.

For me, what stands out on this album is Sia’s voice. It’s throaty and rich. She’s got great range, too; most of the time her voice is in a deeper register, but on the chorus of “Chandelier,” she allows it to edge into a crack. It’s well-suited to the lyrical content of that song, too. She sings, “Party girls don’t get hurt,” and that deep voice does sound drunk, like she’s trying to reassure herself even as she “throw[s] them back till I lose count.” That inner struggle continues in “Elastic Heart.” “I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart,” Sia tells us. Yet throughout the song she wonders if this relationship might finally be the test of that strength: “But there were so many red flags.”

“Big Girls Cry” sums up the album’s themes. Even though she’s a tough girl, Sia’s in pain, and the champagne and high life won’t wash that away. She’s weighed down by baggage (“Eye of the Needle”) and working through a toxic relationship (“Flame Meet Gasoline”). It’s all those different forms of fear coming to life, just like the album title.

“Liner Notes for the Revolution” by Dr. Daphne A. Brooks

I attended a wonderful presentation by Dr. Daphne A. Brooks, author of Liner Notes for the Revolution. The book explores the influence of Black women in music – a contribution that’s overlooked all too often. It’s a deep dive throughout history, touching on Aretha and Beyonc√©, Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston. Dr. Brooks articulates so clearly the power of music, and how its cultural impact is negotiated. In the presentation, Dr. Brooks expanded on this concept: her work is about discovering how to assign a framework for “how music matters,” especially in communities on the fringes.

What I also enjoyed about the presentation was Dr. Brooks’s discussion about her own relationship to music. She described how music criticism came to her from an early age. It was a way of making sense of, in her words, the “foreign” music of rock n’ roll. (Evidently it wasn’t really played at her house.) Growing up in the Bay Area was a natural environment to foster this burgeoning skill: a lot of influential rock music criticism came out of UC Berkeley, Dr. Brooks’s alma mater.

Obviously, this entire presentation was exactly relevant to my interests. It got me thinking about my own life as a music critic and what that title even means. Being a music critic isn’t just album reviews or gushing about the latest single (ahem), though, to be sure, that’s often a big part of it. I think at its core music criticism is a lot like the labor of love that meant Dr. Brooks spent 12 years (!) writing Liner Notes. You’re making sense of the sound and your relationship to it. Then you widen the scope to put both those things in context: perhaps historical, perhaps cultural, or perhaps personal. For example, I often ask myself the following questions: Have I heard this song before? Does it sound like other songs I’ve heard? When did I hear them? What memories did they evoke? (The latter two questions have been especially key for my Throwback Thursday series.)

It is a joy to hear other women talk about music, especially from such an academic standpoint. I haven’t heard that perspective nearly as often. Definitely food for thought and inspiration for my own criticism going forward.

Throwback Thursday: “Fidelity” by Regina Spektor

The album Begin to Hope, released in 2006, was our first mainstream introduction to the Russian-born pianist Regina Spektor. It remains among her best-known work, especially the song “Fidelity.” It’s this bouncy little tune that’s engaging in its simplicity: “Fidelity” is essentially just Spektor and the piano. When this song came out, I loved it for just that reason. Her voice is also beautiful: it’s clear and soft and gives me Norah Jones vibes.

The lyrics are also intriguing to me, and were the first time I heard it as well. The song is titled “Fidelity,” but the lyrics don’t really seem to describe that concept. It’s a story about meeting someone and falling in love, wondering all the while about some alternate universe where that never happened.

The music video for the song is also kind of bizarre. The aesthetic isn’t quite hipster, exactly (despite the kitten heels and the quirky, vintage outfit she’s wearing), but it’s sparse; all black and white. She seems to be talking to herself: there’s an empty person sitting at the little table with her – literally. It’s a mannequin without a person inside, just the clothes hanging in the air, arranged to mimic a person sitting. Suddenly a man appears inside those clothes and they start throwing color at each other. It has to be seen to be believed.

In all honesty, despite – or, more likely, because of – its charming weirdness, this song is just a fun little escape for me. And it brings back strong memories of early high school; the clothes I wore, the classes I took. I hadn’t heard the song in quite some time before writing this post, but it was an immediate time capsule as soon as I did.

Covers Corner: “Royals” by Bruce Springsteen

I have Lorde’s seminal album Pure Heroine on my list for a Throwback Thursday retrospective. In the meantime, I wanted to share a fun cover of her most famous song. The Boss did his own version a few years ago, and there’s lots to unpack.

At first glance, Springsteen doesn’t seem to pair that well with Lorde. Many of his songs are blue collar in nature; see Born in the U.S.A. or Thunder Road. Meanwhile, Lorde’s aesthetic is a slightly darker side of pop. Give the cover another listen, though, and The Boss is a better fit for a cover than you might assume. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh…/And I’m not proud of my address/In a torn-up town, no postcode envy.” Doesn’t that sound like an echo of “Born to Run”? “In the day, we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream/At night, we ride through mansions of glory/In suicide machines.” Let’s go back to Lorde: “We count our dollars on the train to the party.” Springsteen peoples his albums with “tramps like us” and shell-shocked veterans; in “Royals,” Lorde is also looking in from the outside.

Vocally, Springsteen is also a good match. Lorde stands out from her teen idol peers because her voice is so much lower. The Boss’s voice more grizzled now than when Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. came out, carries the cover without sounding strained or awkward.

I also like hearing Springsteen say “You can call me King B.” In the audio, there are a few laughs in the audience at the line. He’s completely unselfconscious, and the vibe extends to the casual, even country-esque vibes that his cover has. (That harmonica alone!)

In terms of comparing cover to original, I’ll definitely go for Lorde’s version. But again, as with so many of my “Covers Corner” posts, I love seeing what other artists bring to the table when they try their hand at recording something completely different. And in this case, it’s a rock’n’roll institution singing a teenage pop song.

It has to be heard to be believed:

And here’s Lorde’s original, just in case you haven’t heard it in awhile:

Throwback Thursday: “Brothers” by The Black Keys

This album was officially the start of my hipster phase. (Remember when hipsters were a trend?). I mean, the cover alone fits the bill: it’s a plain black background with the words, “This is an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.”

With that introduction, simple but direct, Brothers solidified the band’s commercial presence and aesthetic. It’s a refined version of a ’60s throwback: many of the songs, especially “Howlin’ for You,” have jangly, distorted guitar √† la Jimi Hendrix. That distortion would continue with other, later hits like “Gold on the Ceiling,” which is another Black Keys favorite of mine.

“Everlasting Light” is such a lovely album opener. It’s slow – pensive, even – and the rhythmic drumbeat mimics the later line, “Love is the coal/That makes this train roll.” You’ve got that ’60s feel here as well: the repeated “Shoo-shoo-shoo-wa” seems like a nod to girl groups of the era. “Everlasting Light” is the closest thing the album has to a love song. Others, like “She’s Long Gone” and “Next Girl,” describe relationships that have ended. “Too Afraid to Love You” is the complete opposite of “Everlasting Light”; as the title indicates, the narrator is reluctant to start something new. When he does risk it, in “The Only One,” it’s too late.

Brothers closes with “These Days,” which has a completely different feeling than the other songs. It’s even slower than “Everlasting Light” and is very mournful. Part of its chorus features the lyrics, “Wasted times and broken dreams/Violent colors so obscene/It’s all I see these days/These days.” Oof. The song describes a “little house on Ellis Drive” that the narrator misses desperately. You can picture the house: something small and lonely, just like the song itself.

Kelefa Sanneh’s “Major Labels”

This post is written in response to this article about Kelefa Sanneh and his new book, Major Labels, because it really sparked my creativity. I love reading about other music critics and the way that they approach the craft. It’s as educational and important for me as discovering a new band.

Sanneh has an intriguing observation about music genres, arguing that they’re more important than we might (want to) think. Sanneh says that communities are defined by “inclusion and exclusion.” Having clear boundaries about what, say, constitutes disco, or the infamous East Coast-West Coast rap divide, created cultural moments. The same can be said about having clear boundaries regarding our own music tastes. They define who we are.

He goes on to describe his music background and how he became immersed in different fandoms. His comment that you can make up your own mind about the music you like resonated with me. I’ve written before about “guilty pleasure” songs and fandom gatekeeping. And recently, I made a post about a “music friend” I had how our falling out made me aware of the way I’d begun to define my music obsession by our relationship.

It’s interesting that we often allow ourselves to be influenced by the cultural milieu. (“If everyone else likes it, I have to.”) When you take a step back and reconsider that no, I decide what I like, it’s remarkably freeing. Sanneh notes that these interrogations are important.

Easier said than done, of course: many people become set in their ways, especially as they get older. Allowing yourself to open up and explore a different style of music is revitalizing. You’ll learn something about yourself, and maybe encourage a more expansive way of thinking – even beyond music – as well.

I’m looking forward to reading Major Labels and seeing what else I get out of Sanneh’s music commentary.

Monthly Obsessions – September 2021

This month features more slow jams than usual. “Mrs. Robinson” and “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” are both acoustic icons straight from the ’60s and ’70s. I was humming “Mrs. Robinson” for weeks, which is probably why it eventually made its way into a post.

I was surprised that I revisited 1989, Taylor Swift’s album from 2014, during this month. I’m not a “Swiftie” by any stretch of the imagination, but 1989 is definitely my favorite of her albums. It’s refreshingly spare, and uses softer electronics to support, and even enhance, her voice without washing it out. “Blank Space” is chilling but catchy, and “This Love” is sad but lovely. Hopeful, too, in an odd sort of way.

I mentioned in my post about The Naked and Famous’s debut album that I revisit their work a lot. When I do, it’s typically the two songs you see in the playlist below: “Rolling Waves” and “Hearts Like Ours.” They’re just such forceful songs that are full of emotion, and I think the lyrics are also beautiful.

Take a listen below. What was on repeat for you this month?

Throwback Thursday: “The E.N.D.” by Black Eyed Peas

This album was released in 2009. I still have a magazine from that year that features an ad for it. Get this: the ad says you can buy the CD at Target! What a time capsule. I definitely remember when buying CDs was still a thing and how exciting it was to take that plastic film off the case before you could listen to it.

Aside from showing my age, the album itself is still really fun to listen to. It’s got that tight proto-EDM feel that was big back then. Each beat is solid, steady; this comes across particularly well in album opener “Boom Boom Pow.” Those beats flow smoothly across the rest of The E.N.D. That said, “Imma Be” is the weakest of the singles in my opinion – even back then I thought so. I remember talking to friends about the song when it came out, and we all thought that it just sounded weird. The lyrics aren’t exactly meaningless, but the rap-style bragging is conveyed without much feeling.

But speaking of feeling: the best song on the entire album has to be “I Gotta Feeling.” All these years later, it still makes me want to get up and dance. That iconic beat is so joyful. Its lyrics are all about celebrating, and so you want to celebrate, too. I also love when Fergie says “Drank!” It’s silly in the best way and captures the spirit of a great party. After all: “I gotta feeling/That tonight’s gonna be a good night.”

The other hallmark of this album is vocal distortion. “Meet Me Halfway” is where this stands out the most. Somehow it actually fits the emotion of the song and the desperation of wanting to be with someone, despite the distance. Indeed, that song is one of the more “serious” songs on The E.N.D. in general. The rest, such as “Rock That Body” and “Party All the Time,” are more about going out and having fun. Even pop albums need something to ground them every once in awhile.

Immerse yourself in the nostalgia:

Covers Corner: “The Scientist” by Willie Nelson

Before Coldplay collaborated with the likes of Rihanna, The Chainsmokers, and, most recently, BTS, they were best known for coffee shop ballads that veered into the atmospheric (see: “Viva la Vida”). Songs such as “Yellow,” “Clocks,” “Green Eyes,” and “Fix You” got them noticed. “The Scientist” is another early hit; if I’m being honest, it’s actually my favorite Coldplay song.

“The Scientist” is just so moving. It describes the inability of logic and reason to describe why a relationship might be falling apart. “Questions of science/Science and progress/Do not speak as loud as my heart.” Chris Martin sings feelingly here, especially when he pleads, “Oh, take me back to the start.” You wish for that moment to go back to the good. The song itself is rather spare. It focuses on piano, with eventual soft guitar and drums. Oof.

Willie Nelson’s take on this song is probably one of its better-known covers. His version has twangy guitar rather than piano, and his distinctive, gravelly, grownup-cowboy voice makes the song more mature. Here, the song feels grounded; perhaps that’s because it’s slower. When he sings, “Nobody said it was easy,” you get the sense that he’s speaking from a great deal of experience. Indeed, at the lyric, “I was just guessing/At numbers and figures/Pulling the puzzles apart,” there’s a different level of introspection there than in the Coldplay version. And there’s comfort there, too.

I have to say, I like the Willie Nelson version better, probably for those reasons. The lyrics themselves are lovely, and he gives them a nice extra weight.

Unfortunately, his cover isn’t available on Spotify, so I’ll post the YouTube link instead.

Throwback Thursday: “Passive Me, Aggressive You” by The Naked and Famous

It’s hard to believe that this album came out 11 years ago. It holds up so well, and is one of those rare albums that has standouts beyond just the singles (“Punching in a Dream,” “All of This,” “Young Blood,” and “Girls Like You,” for those following along at home).

The Naked and Famous have been around since 2007, but it wasn’t until they released this album that they really started getting traction. “Young Blood,” the first single, was a massive hit, and it’s not hard to see why. The song has jangly, strumming, guitars, with piercing synths. Lead singer Alisa Xayalith’s voice is distinctive right out of the gate: it’s not shrill, but high and confident, veering into an almost whisper when the song calls for it. The lyrics themselves are iconic: “We’re only young and naive still/We require certain skills.”

As for the other singles, “Punching in a Dream” has a similar sound to “Young Blood.” Those strumming synthesizers, those drums, those echoing guitars. Of the singles, I think I like “Girls Like You” the best. It slows things down and introduces us to Thom Powers, whose voice is much softer than Xayalith’s. They provide a nice counterpoint to each other.

I did say that there were other good songs from Passive Me, Aggressive You besides the singles, so let’s talk about those, too. One of my favorites is “No Way.” It’s so soft and acoustic to start with. Xayalith’s voice follows along, measured; she sustains the quietude of the lyrics perfectly. When the song explodes into a crunch, the progression feels natural and earned. (TNAF explores similar sounds in their follow-up album In Rolling Waves.) Meanwhile, “Spank” is distorted and muffles Xayalith’s voice; the whole song has a tight and tense rhythm.

It’s interesting that after the splash of this album, TNAF has – not faded, exactly, but they’re not as big. Their work has remained consistent without being repetitive ever since Passive Me, Aggressive You, and they’ve also branched out into remix work. I revisit TNAF regularly, especially In Rolling Waves, but I’ll always love this album for both the nostalgia factor and the jolt of indie electronica.